by Ron Balicki
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (August 6, 2009) – Nathan Smith received a very special birthday gift – and it came from himself.
On a roller coaster, 36-hole day, Smith shot rounds of 71-71 Thursday to easily advance into the Sweet 16 match-play portion of the 107th Western Amateur Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club.
Smith, who turned 31, finished the 72-hole stroke play segment of this grueling tournament at 3-under-par 281.
That put him in a tie for second with Patrick Reed, who celebrated his 19th birthday the previous day, Phillip Mollica and Travis Woolf. They finished one shot behind medalist Chen-Tsung Pan, a native of Taiwan who has spent the last two years at the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Pan, 17, and a high school senior-to-be, charged to the front with rounds of 67-69.
Mollica put forth the day’s best overall performance. Starting the day at 5 over and 11 shots out of first place, the recent Clemson graduate shot 69 in the morning and came back in the afternoon with a 6-under 65 – the best round of the tournament.
Reed, who will transfer from Georgia to Augusta State this fall as a sophomore, posted a pair of even-par 71s while Woolf, who will be a senior at TCU, shot 69-72.
John Hahn and Adam Long tied at 2-over-par 286 for the final match play spot. Hahn, who will be a junior at Kent State, advanced with a par on the first playoff hole (par-4 10th) as Long, a senior at Duke, hit his approach shot into a water hazard and made double bogey.
Smith, considered by many as a strong contender for this year’s U.S. Walker Cup team, bounced back and forth all day, but in both rounds made impressive finishes.
Starting the day at 3 under, Smith was back to even-par after 13 holes. He came back to birdie three of his last four holes. In the afternoon, after a birdie at No. 3, he made a triple bogey on No. 5. He birdied the seventh, but bogeyed 11. Hecclosed strong with a birdie at 16 and another at 18, where he drained a 30-foot putt from just off the green.
“I managed to hang in there,” Smith said. “On this course there are stretches where you just have to tip-toe through.”
“Obviously this is a big week,” Smith said, referring to the USGA’s plans to announce eight of the 10 U.S. Walker Cup team members following the Western Amateur. “So it feels great to play well and get into the Sweet 16.”
Pan’s morning round of 67 was highlighted by three huge wedge shots. Starting on the 10th hole, he chipped in for birdie from a hazard by the green. At the par-5 18th, he holed a 90-yard shot for eagle and at No. 6 he pitched in from the rough from 30 yards away.
“I haven’t played well in a long time so this makes me feel a lot better,” said Pan, whose biggest victory to date came at the 2007 Taiwan Spring Amateur Championship. “The way I played today gives me more confidence. The big thing for me is no three-putts this week.”
Pan made it to the Sweet 16 at this year’s U.S. Junior Amateur, but missed qualifying for the U.S. Amateur by a shot.
Reed is no stranger to match play. He was a semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Amateur and earlier this summer was a quarterfinalist at the North & South Amateur.
“I’ve been able to stay consistent all week and that has been key,” Reed said. “Today I was steady all day. This is a tough course and you have to be patient and I’ve been able to do that.”
Mollica, winner of the 2007 North & South Amateur and 2008 Monroe Invitational, made the day’s biggest jump. He started the third round tied for 42nd after finishing his first 36 holes on the cutline of the low 44 scores and ties.
His final round 65 featured eight birdies – including four in a row on Nos. 13-16 – against a pair of bogeys.
While Mollica was among those making a charge into the Sweet 16, there were a few disasters.
Kevin Tway, the first- and second-round leader, was 6 under after 36 holes, but shot 7-over 78 in the morning to all but end his hopes. He closed with 75 and tied for 22nd.
Luke Guthrie, started at 5 under and was paired with Tway in the final twosome, His morning round of 77 provided the knockout punch. A closing 82 left him tied for 38th.
Peter Uihlein got back in the thick of things at even par with a 68 in the morning. But the Oklahoma State sophomore played his first 11 holes in the afternoon in 9 over, including a quadruple bogey, and shot 80, tying for 29th.
The first round of match play takes place Friday morning followed by the quarterfinals. Semifinal matches take place Saturday morning with the championship final in the afternoon. All matches are 18 holes.
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Ron Balicki is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail email@example.com.